The question of the future status of Abyei remains a deeply contested issue between Sudan and the independent South Sudan. The connection between the political violence in Abyei and eruption of the two civil wars in Sudan is sparsely documented, but this history reveals the character of the Abyei problem. This article provides an analysis of the role of political violence in the emergence of the dispute around the status of Abyei. It charts the evolution of the problem chronologically, first situating the history of the Ngok Dinka population of Abyei, and then mapping the history of violence through the independence period, the first civil war, the early 1970s and the failure of the Addis Ababa Agreement, and finally the second civil war in the 1980s. Political violence in Abyei became central to the large-scale contestation between the south and the north in Sudan, the struggle of the Abyei people contributing towards shaping a southern Sudanese identity and in defining the character of the independent state of South Sudan.